Feast upon the Word Blog

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RS / MP Lesson 16: “The Church of Jesus Christ in Former Times”

Posted by Jim F. on August 12, 2010

NOTE: As with all the materials I post, I am more inclined to offer questions for thought than to give what some might think are the answers to questions. The scriptures are equally available to us all, so anyone who is literate and has time to ponder and pray is entitled to answers from the Holy Spirit. Often, however, I’m not sure there is any one answer to the questions that the Gospel raises.

Questions sometimes give us a chance to think, to open ourselves to new revelation, to be brought up short, even to repent. Jesus’ question after telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, “Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves?” (Luke 10:36) was a question designed to teach and to bring repentance. I hope that by asking questions, I may help you see the questions that the scriptures ask us, questions that teach and can bring us to repentance.

But since these materials are designed for more than personal study, specifically they are intended to help people prepare lessons, I’ll not only ask questions, I’ll also make some comments on the lesson material itself.

Lesson 16

We believe in the same organization that existed in the Primitive Church, namely, apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists, and so forth. (Articles of Faith 6)

The question is, what does this claim mean? It doesn’t mean that were we somehow to return to 1st-century Jerusalem we would find a Christian churched that we would immediately recognize as being like our home ward. We don’t know a lot about the early Church. The New Testament tell us only a little and there are few other documents to rely on. But it seems unlikely that we would recognize what they were doing. There would be a local leader, a bishop, but he might not function as our bishop does. The deacons were not twelve-year-olds, and we don’t know what they did in the church. We don’t know for sure that there was a priesthood office called “teacher,” though modern revelation certainly suggests that there was. Though there were priests, at the temple, it isn’t obvious that there was anyone with that title in a local, first-century congregation.

But the Articles of Faith tells us this much: the early Church had apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, and evangelists (i.e., patriarchs; see Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, page 151). I understand this to remind us of two important features of the Restoration: we are guided by revelation and we have been given authority from God to perform his ordinances. Those two points are at the heart of this lesson.

Revelation

Were I teaching this lesson, one of the things I would want to talk with the class about is the forms that revelation can take. I think most saints would agree that it is less often a voice speaking to one, but I think we are disinclined to think of conclusions we come to by thinking through a problem as revelation, though D&C 9 invites us to do so. If the Holy Ghost is a person’s constant companion, then wouldn’t she or he always be acting by revelation, even if not directly aware of it? If so, then the question is, “is the Holy Ghost my constant companion?”

What responsibility does the doctrine of revelation give leaders in the Church? If I am a leader, can I assume that my ideas and decisions are the product of revelation? How can I be a leader who receives and acts on revelation without being a leader who is oppressive and violates the directions for leadership given in D&C 121:36-45? As a leader, what should my attitude be towards those I lead? Toward God? Toward myself?

What responsibility does the doctrine of revelation give we who follow in the Church? Should I assume that everything my leader says is inspired by God? If not, how do I decide? Recognizing that my leader is a mortal like myself, how do I give a leader the benefit of the doubt?

Authority from God

Why is authority so important to our Heavenly Father? Author and authority are closely related words. Is there any sense in which one who has authority is an author, one who creates, one who is responsible for something ? Of what might a priesthood leader legitimately be an author? Can other leaders also be authors in that sense? Why or why not?

Church Organization

The authority of God is exercised within the Church as it is presently organized. Why does authority need an organization? Why can’t people be given authority and then left to the revelation they receive as they exercise that authority?

The manual focuses on two issues: (1) The organization of the present Church is, in an important sense even if not in detail, like that of the ancient Church; (2) the New Testament shows us that the organization of the Church was intended to continue, but it didn’t.

I think I would disagree mildly with the second point. For the most part the organization did continue. There continued to be churches with deacons and teachers and evangelists, with bishops over local congregations. There is no point in arguing with our Catholic friends over that one. What was missing was the apostolic office without which legitimate ordinations could continue for only a generation at the most.

First Principles and Ordinances

The lesson manual takes the phrase “first principles and ordinances” to divide the familiar four-part list into two parts: faith and repentance, on the one hand, and baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost, on the other. In other words, according to the manual “first principles” refers to faith and repentance and “first ordinances” to baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost. Does thinking about that phrase in that way add anything to your understanding? What? How do you think differently after seeing that division?

What does the word “principle” mean in a context like this?

What does the word “ordinance” mean? Is it connected to the word “order”? If so, how? How might ordinances give order?

Ordinances Performed for the Dead

It is obvious from 1 Corinthians 15:29 that at least some Christians practiced baptism for the dead. It is also obvious that Paul doesn’t condemn the practice. But it is not obvious that the practice was widespread nor how it compared to our contemporary ordinance. But whatever is true about the ordinance in the early Church, we know that we are commanded to practice it in the modern Church (D&C 138).

When discussing this doctrine, it is important that we not misportray the beliefs of others about the fate of those who have died without baptism. Most often we get those beliefs wrong. Often we do so in ways that are offensive. Sometimes we do so arrogantly, and sometimes what we teach about others creates enmity between them and us.

For example, sometimes people teach that Catholics believe that anyone who has not been baptized is doomed to hell for eternity, but that is not true. Since at least the Council of Trent in the 16th century (perhaps much longer; I’m not sure) they have taught that baptism is necessary to salvation but that one can be baptized by means of desire: a person who is contrite in heart and acts for the love of God implicitly desires to be baptized and, therefore, their desire counts as baptism. They also have a belief that the fathers, such as Abraham and Moses, who came before Christ and, so, were never baptized, will be saved. Catholic doctrine is more sophisticated than my brief explanation portrays it to be, but the point is the same: we often ascribe to people beliefs that they do not hold, and that is wrong.

The solution is easy: don’t claim to know or understand the beliefs of another unless you really do know and understand them. We don’t have to be able to condemn the beliefs of others in order to know what ours are or to think about what they mean to us.

How is ordinance work for the dead important to those who have died? How is it important to us? How does it bind the hearts of the children and their fathers, and vice versa? Why is that binding important? In other words, why is it that we cannot receive salvation without our dead?

Spiritual Gifts

What is the status of spiritual gifts in the Church today? Can you see instances of their existence in your own life and the lives of other saints? Why are they called “spiritual gifts” rather than “spiritual powers”?

Apostasy

For the most part the manual handles the issue of apostasy well: the evil people who try to destroy the work of God are mostly persecutors of the Church; apostasy is primarily the result of the loss of the Apostles.

Here, too, we ought to be careful what we say about other churches. I’ll never forget talking to a wonderful man, a Catholic priest, who said, “You are offended when some Christians—though not usually Catholic Christians—say that you are not Christian. But it never crosses your mind that I might be offended when you say that I am an apostate.” We believe that an apostasy occurred. There would have been no need for the Restoration had it not. Is it possible to keep our belief in the apostasy of the early Church and, at the same time, not to offend Catholics and others? What kind of language might do that? What kind of story about what happened might do that?

The Restoration

The Lord knew in advance that there would be an apostasy, as we see in the prophecies of the Restoration we have in the New Testament (see the manual). But why would God allow his Church to be destroyed in the first place? And why wait as long as he did to restore that Church?

7 Responses to “RS / MP Lesson 16: “The Church of Jesus Christ in Former Times””

  1. JerryY said

    Thanks for your “questions” approach to Chapter 16.
    An important part of presenting lessons is to prompt participation by those present. Posing questions yields opportunities for participation and discussion. Some wit said a lecturer spews material for student notes without the material passing through the minds of the lecturer nor of the student.

  2. Jacob said

    I’ve always liked Brian Birch’s narrative of how contemporary LDS approach the “Great Apostasy.” Some approach it as “Apostasy Heavy”: horrible wickedness invaded the church and it was utterly removed from the earth, and with it all spiritual gifts and even any sort of influence of the Holy Ghost. Then there is “Apostasy Light”: Some incorrect beliefs gradually crept into the church and eventually divine authority to perform ordinances was removed; but the influence of the Holy Ghost and spiritual gifts in general remained, as evidenced by the many good men and women throughout Christian history that taught salvation through Jesus Christ and performed good works as Christians. Brian says he sees the Apostasy Light narrative as becoming increasingly influential in LDS discourse, though Apostasy Heavy is certainly still there.

    • Jim F. said

      Jacob, yes Brian’s got a good point. Those are the two ends of the spectrum and I agree that it appears that the “light” end is taking on more weight among LDS.

  3. ceh said

    On Revelation:
    Much is said in LDS culture about the Holy Ghost being a constant companion, but I wonder if we expect too much in this regard. It seems to me that the more we progress, the more we would be expected to act without the constant prodding of the Holy Ghost. (“We will prove them whether they will do all things which the Lord their God commanded them”). It seems to me that the time will come when we will be tested whether we will choose the way we have been commanded without constant “prodding”. Pres. Packer implied this in his story of his early days in the quorum when he was given an assignment and was unsure how to proceed. One of the elder apostles (seems like it might have been Hugh B. Brown) told him, (roughly paraphrased) “Your problem is that you want to be able to see the end from the beginning. You must learn to take a few steps into the darkness, then the way will be made known to you.” In other words, even an apostle, who has had years of experience listening to the spirit, must sometimes act in faith, using principles he has learned, before receiving the revelation of how he should proceed. This seems a reasonable concept. We will be tested at points along our progression to re-inforce the principles we should have learned in previous experiences. However, I think it is safe to say that such confirmation will come more abundantly to leaders whose actions will impact the progress of other sincere individuals (ward members).

  4. Scott B. said

    Jim,
    This is a fantastic discussion-starter. I have had to teach this class a couple of times (Gospel Principles and RS/MP) and found your questions and commentary very useful. In particular, they form a solid starting point to addressing some of what I perceive to be misconceptions about the ancient Church in contemporary LDS thought (i.e., I prefer to think of things in terms of Apostasy ‘Light’ when many of my class members prefer Apostasy ‘Heavy’; suggesting that 1 Cor. 15:29 is not a slam-dunk proof that full-blown temples were operating then as they are now; etc…) in a non-confrontational or contentious way.

  5. Jodi Brown said

    Thank you for these questions and insightful material. I particularly like the “order” and “ordinance” question. I believe order is one of the key principles we must learn to fully understand the gospel. There is little in life that our Father in Heaven does not want us to experience or enjoy, so long as we participate and partake in the proper and established order. If the young people of the church could fully understand this, it could change their lives.

    On another note, as far as the organization of the church is concerned, I would suggest that the organization did not remain on the earth through the Catholic church. If my understanding is correct, the leaders involved in the formation of the Catholic church brought many of the titles (bishop, deacon, etc) back into the church, but by then, the true gospel responsibilities and callings had been lost, so while the titles are the same, the organization and authority had been lost. The responsilibities of the offices do not truly correspond with those in the early church. The titles were also used and “handed out” by other government leaders of the day, though they had nothing to do with the priesthood offices they originally represented.

    Again, thank you for your insight. I also appreciated the “author” vs “authority” line of thinking. This has given me some good suggestions for my presentation of this lesson.

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